Sunday, May 06, 2007

Artistic Influences

I'm gonna take a break from my political ranting and talk about some of my artistic influences instead (okay, I hear all that cheering, knock it off already). I was asked the other day about where my influences came from, and why I paint the kind of things I do.

My earliest influence was Norman Rockwell. As a kid, I thought he was the best artist who ever lived. He could tell a story that you would understand right away, and all the people and objects were depicted with such realism that you could almost feel them. I wanted to do that kind of painting when I grew up. But when I did grow up, I realized Rockwell's limitations. He was a sentimental illustrator - his images were sappy, idealized versions of a bygone America that never really existed. He almost never engaged in any subject with any meat to it, and even when he did, there wasn't much to it. For example, he did a painting about freedom of speech. An important topic and technically well done, but in his version, it just showed a guy standing up and talking, with other people respectfully listening. There's no emotional involvement by the viewer, no tension, no conflict. Pretty dull.

Another early influence was Edward Hopper. His paintings had a lonely feel to them. I think a lot of people can relate to that, particularly teenagers like me, who felt like nobody in the world understood them. (Now I know that's just a normal part of being a teenager, but then it was a major trauma). When I first saw this painting, Early Sunday Morning, it about blew me away. Here was a painting that had a palpable feel to it. It's about people, but there aren't any people visible - just the traces of things they touched. It's a narrative that isn't completely spelled out, that requires the viewer to fill in a lot of it. And each viewer will come up with a different story. Of course, as a teen, I went completely overboard, and thought Hopper was the greatest painter who ever lived. But later, when I really studied his paintings, I found out that he, too, had limitations. Hopper's paintings missed the mark more often than they hit it. Some paintings were unbelieveably strong, while others were just poorly done. Still, his work resonated with me.

Later, I discovered Thomas Hart Benton. Now Benton is often derided these days as little more than an illustrator or genre painter, but an artist can learn a lot from studying his paintings. Benton really knew how to construct a painting. This one is titled The Sources of Country Music. It's a very dynamic composition. Everything is tied into everything else. It swoops and swirls, and your eye moves around it easily in a smooth rhythm. If you imagine leaving a trail of paint behind your eye movement, you'll recognize the painting style of one of Benton's most famous students: Jackson Pollack. Benton told illustrative stories, Pollack worked with paint, but the structure and movement in both is very similar.

While a student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, I discovered two painters who had a big effect on me. One was Alice Neel, the other Lucien Freud. Both focus on the figure and both let the individuality of their subjects shine through.

Neel uses a very loose approach, starting with an underdrawing (often in ultramarine blue!) and then building up from that. She doesn't worry too much about fine finish: she's after the ephemera of personality and the moment. Neel's subjects are real people, not idealized or generic.

Lucien Freud's work is much more finished. Like Neel, you can see the results of the process: thick paint, brushstrokes, changes, decisions made and unmade. I get the feeling that Freud is more concerned about his own thoughts and feelings than he is about his subject's, but his subjects are still very real people. For a long time I consciously copied many aspects of his style; actually, I think that now I may be going back toward it again. For me, it's vital that a painting look like a painting, with brush strokes and paint in themselves being as important as the thing they depict. If you're going to hide the painting process and try for a photorealistic image, you may as well just take your photo to WalMart and blow it up.

A more contemporary artist who has had a significant influence on me is Jerome Witkin. He works with serious subjects: rape, the Holocaust, religion, the Kennedy assassination, and more. His paintings have all the structure of Benton's work, but in a more subtle yet solid manner. His people are normal people caught up in events outside their control. The paintings are stories that don't tell you everything. I really respond to Witkin's work on a gut level. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to spend three days working with him in his studio and learned a tremendous amount. He's a wonderful artist and a supremely kind and gracious individual.

Last, a problematic artist is Odd Nerdrum. His paintings have an "ohmigawd" element to them. Nerdrum paints like Rembrandt, but his subjects come from deep in the psyche. Lately I've been studying his paintings as closely as I can from a big thick brick of a book, looking at how he builds them up. Nerdrum uses layers on layers, dragging paint over the top, scraping it down, and eventually creates a deep image that's rich in texture. I've been trying to learn the technique, but it seems to bog me down - in focusing on surface texture, I'm losing the "moment" that Neel and Freud are so good at capturing. My paintings are starting to look static and almost overworked. For some of them, the "static" element is fine - these are the paintings of the destruction in Bosnia, which are quiet and contemplative, and which seem to suit this style. I can't seem to get it to work with figures. I don't know yet if I'll stay with this, or go back to the looser style.

This note has gone on long enough. I wanted to get this down before the thoughts left me, and now my brain is empty.

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